I have written frequently about the dangers of erecting a new building before an arts institution is really ready for the drain of time, money and focus that inevitably accompanies a construction project. We have far too many 'house poor' arts institutions that struggle simply to pay the upkeep for their venues.
But as I think increasingly about the future of the arts, it occurs to me that there is a far greater danger of overbuilding arts palaces: it is not clear to me that many of them will even be needed 20 years from now.
I am convinced more than ever that electronic distribution of arts performances, and even exhibitions, is going to dominate our arts ecology in the future. New technologies will allow online presentations to mimic attendance in a real theater; sound technology is going to continue to improve to the point that it will be impossible to hear (or even feel) the difference between a live performance and one online. I imagine that eventually headphones won't even be required; sound will be directed to one or several users and will not be heard by others.
The convenience of online performances will be a central factor in consumers' choices about attending a live performance (at a specific time, at a specific location) or watching online - when one likes, where one likes. One will be able to watch late at night or early in the morning or on a lunch break or while waiting for an airplane; the choice will be up to you.
But it will be the cost differences that will make the biggest difference. Forget the auxiliary costs of attending a performance (transportation, food service, baby-sitters, etc.); the differential in ticket price alone will be a determining factor. At present, an orchestra seat to the Metropolitan Opera costs $300 per ticket, while attending a move theater broadcast costs only $25. In the future, watching online, at home, will likely cost even less compared to a ticket to the performance. For many people, this difference in cost will be too difficult to pass up.
For many of my generation, watching online is not as rewarding as watching live. But for many younger people, who learn to use an iPad before they can even talk, online viewing is simply how one is entertained, not a come down from live attendance.
I fully expect the number of online broadcasts (from major national and international institutions) to increase and the number of live performances (from regional institutions) to fall in the future. If this scenario obtains, we will not need as many arts venues in the decades ahead.
We are likely to have a series of expensive, purpose-built white elephant structures that are difficult to re-purpose and either sit vacant or are rarely used. Almost 10 theaters have been built or substantially renovated in Washington, D.C. alone over the past decade. Is this really a good use of resources?
Wouldn't the future of the arts in America be brighter if we dedicated our efforts to creating more and better art rather than bigger and fancier buildings?